The University of California Doesn’t Need Fixing

Dick Ackerman and Mel Levine
Dick Ackerman and Mel Levine co-chair the California Coalition for Public Higher Education. Ackerman is a former California State Senator and Assemblyman, and Levine is a former U.S. Congressman and State Assemblyman.

“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”  Sacramento lawmakers ought to keep that adage in mind before they adopt legislation to “fix” the University of California.  The last thing the University needs is micromanaging by the Legislature.

For more than 50 years, under California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, UC has been the linchpin of the finest public higher education system in the world.  One of the things that has made UC work so well is its independence from political command and control.  The independent Board of Regents—appointed by the Governor with the consent of the State Senate—is UC’s governing body.  Now some legislators are making proposals to greatly weaken the independence of the Regents by shortening their terms and taking over budgetary controls. 

UC governance is hardly in need of a makeover.  The University of California is the best in the country and the world by virtually every count.  In the latest rankings of public universities by U.S. News and World Report, UC campuses occupied six of the top ten slots—headed by UC Berkeley Number 1 and UCLA number 2.   When it comes to providing the greatest opportunity and economic diversity, the recent New York Times measurement of colleges doing the most for the American Dream” placed five UC campuses at the head of the list.

There is a constant frustration that more California students can’t be admitted to the campus of their choice.  That problem is really the product of decades of under-funding by the State, which has inhibited growth in capacity and forced a greater reliance on fees and tuition.   Per student State support for UC remains little more than a third of what it was forty years ago.  Over the past decade, UC’s share of the State General Fund is down 14%.  Like the California State University system and the community colleges, UC has been forced to do more with less.

The latest salvo from Sacramento has been triggered by a report by the State Auditor regarding the budgetary practices of the UC Office of the President.  Included in the report was reference to $175 million in reserves, which was immediately labeled by critics as “a slush fund.”  In fact, those monies were earmarked for a number of positive, publicly announced initiatives with the full knowledge of the Board of Regents.  In response to the accusations, the State Auditor made a clarifying statement that “nothing nefarious” was found in the audit.  There were several suggestions for improved accounting practices, which the Regents readily accepted.

None of this adds up to a rationale for legislative interference in the name of accountability.  Politicians like to rail against even modest tuition increases, but don’t provide the funding that would eliminate the need for tuition and fee hikes.  The Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, and the Speaker of the Assembly all serve on the Board of Regents—there is hardly a case for more political involvement.

Like every organization, there are things that UC could probably do better and the University has made real strides in becoming more efficient and cost conscious.  That said, there is no reason to believe that putting more legislative oars in the water will guide the University in the right direction.

Dick Ackerman and Mel Levine co-chair the California Coalition for Public Higher Education. Ackerman is a former California State Senator and Assemblyman, and Levine is a former U.S. Congressman and State Assemblyman. Please visit yestohighered.org

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